Conference of Presidents: Our Saudi trip is a ‘big step forward’ for Israel ties
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Conference of Presidents: Our Saudi trip is a ‘big step forward’ for Israel ties

After first visit to kingdom, heads of US Jewish umbrella group says it’s the beginning of a ‘long and productive relationship’

The Conference of Presidents' Malcolm Hoenlein (L), Arthur Stark (C) and William Daroff at a press conference in Jerusalem, February 16, 2020 (Avi Hayoun)
The Conference of Presidents' Malcolm Hoenlein (L), Arthur Stark (C) and William Daroff at a press conference in Jerusalem, February 16, 2020 (Avi Hayoun)

The heads of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said Sunday that last week’s visit by a delegation from the US Jewish umbrella group to Saudi Arabia represented a “big step forward” in the kingdom’s warming ties with Israel.

“We just came back from a very important trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was the first such trip we have had to the kingdom and we feel it was very productive. Very encouraging,” said Conference of Presidents chairman Arthur Stark in a press conference in Jerusalem alongside  executive vice president Malcolm Hoenlein and CEO William Daroff.

While delegations from the Conference of Presidents have visited a number of Arab countries, this was the first trip to Saudi Arabia and believed to be the first official visit to the kingdom by an American Jewish organization since 1993.

The visit, which took place from Monday to Thursday, included meetings with senior Saudi officials as well as with Mohammed al-Issa, the secretary-general of the Muslim World League who recently led a delegation to Auschwitz. Al-Issa is seen as close to Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince.

The talks between the Conference delegation and Saudi officials focused on countering terrorism and fomenters of instability in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Israel share a mutual concern about Iran’s activity in the region and both fear that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program.

Stressing that the meetings in Saudi Arabia were off-record, Stark said on Sunday, “We had an open dialogue. We met with high-level officials and raised our concerns, they raised their concerns, and we firmly believe that this a step in a long and productive relationship.”

Jared Kushner (right) alongside a member of the Saudi delegation at a White House meeting between US President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, March 20, 2018. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Getty Images via JTA)

“We’ve been engaging extensively with Gulf states over the course of a number of years. I think that this is a big step forward in it,” he said, adding that “it mirrors other visits that we have had with Gulf states where the embrace of Israel is clearly already there.”

Hoenlein, declining to answer questions on whether the trip reflected a Saudi willingness to accept US President Donald Trump’s recently released peace plan, suggested “reading the tea leaves.”

“This week Secretary Pompeo will be in Saudi Arabia. You can read the public statements of Saudi officials regarding the peace plan and other public statements they’ve made. So we are hopeful things will continue to change in a direction that we will be pleased with,” said Hoenlein.

The visit signals what could be a warming of ties between some mainstream US Jewish groups and Saudi Arabia.

The latter has come under fire in recent years for cracking down on dissidents. Saudi agents in 2018 brutally murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident and Saudi national who had become critical of the regime, when he was visiting Istanbul.

But Saudi Arabia has also forged closer informal ties with Israel in recent years.

In 1993, the American Jewish Congress sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia, as the Oslo peace process was getting underway.

It’s unlikely that last week’s visit took place without the blessing and encouragement of the Trump administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is close to bin Salman. Kushner is seeking traction for the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan he unveiled last month, which has been greeted with skepticism by most of the international community.

Netanyahu also favors the plan, and is seeking to raise his profile as a world player ahead of elections in Israel next month — the country’s third in less than a year.

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